The Emmy-award winning documentary Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story , is a look back at Korematsu's long ordeal to achieve personal justice.
The matter seemed lost to the history books until 1981, when Peter Irons, a law professor writing a book about the internment, and Aiko Yoshinaga-Herzig, a Japanese American on a quest to find out why she'd been interned as a teenager, happened upon a wartime memo from a Department of Justice lawyer. The memo showed that crucial evidence had been withheld by federal prosecutors in the Korematsu case, including military reports concluding that Japanese Americans did not pose a serious threat to U.S. security.
Peter Irons knew he found a "smoking gun," and tracked down Korematsu and the other two resisters- Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui-- to ask about reopening their cases. Irons contacted noted civil rights attorney Dale Minami, who assembled a team of lawyers--mostly Asian American, who worked countless hours pro bono.
Recalls Minami, "Peter Irons called me in May of 1982 and told me about the evidence he had found. I had read these cases in law school, but for me they were taught as intellectual exercises about the balance of rights and due process. At that time Korematsu vs United States was not linked to human tragedy, loss of homes, broken dreams, or financial losses of income that people suffered. I called my colleague Don Tamaki at the Asian Law Caucus, a community interest law firm that I helped start, and disclosed the nature of the evidence. A number of attorneys I was working with had already been lobbying for redress for Japanese Americans. All of them were stunned at the evidence and were blown away that we might be able to reopen the cases. We had the smoking gun-the things that lawyers talk about, the thing that lawyers love. We worked in secrecy because we didn't want any documents to "accidentally" disappear from the archives.
Minami, as coordinating counsel, recruited Peggy Nagae in Portland and Kathryn Bannai and Rod Kawakami in Seattle to lead their respective legal teams. The lawyers decided to file separate petitions in each judicial district where their clients were convicted. This strategy allowed them three separate opportunities to win one of the cases and create both educational opportunities and appealable legal issues.
In the interim, Ex-justice Arthur Goldberg, former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, heard about the project and wrote an opinion letter stating that these efforts were foolhardy, that the defendants were bound to lose, and that it was impossible for these cases to be won forty years later. That it would set the redress movement back. The pro bono team of lawyers worked thousands of hours for free to bring some justice to what happened to Korematsu, Hirabayashi, and Yasui.
"We knew we had the evidence. We were on a mission with such clarity of vision that one rarely receives in a lifetime," said Minami.
They disregarded Goldberg's "warning."
Finally on Jan. 19, 1983, the attorneys filed a writ of Coram Nobis--the legal term for a fundamental injustice committed before the court and discovered only after a sentence has been serviced. Korematsu's legal team argued that government prosecutors suppressed, altered, and destroyed evidence presented to justify the convictions of the internment resisters. They also argued that the government committed fraud in prosecuting Korematsu because there was no reason to imprison Japanese Americans in internment camps. Personal justice came for Korematsu on November 10, 1983, when his war time criminal conviction was voided.
Minami recalled, "The decision was beautifully crafted. Immediately after our argument, the judge made her ruling. She overturned Fred's conviction and held that there was no military necessity for the military orders, that the military commander who issued the orders maintained views tainted by racism and that the United States Government had illegally suppressed, altered and destroyed evidence critical to the United States Supreme Court's decision in 1944. The decision resounded in the ceremonial courtroom filled with about 800 people, mostly Japanese Americans. This was the trial they never had and after the decision the crowd erupted with applause, tears, and sniffling. I walked over to Fred after she announced her decision. Fred looked shell-shocked. And he asked, 'What happened?' I told him, 'We won. You won your case.' And he looked at me and said, ' That's good.' It took a while for it to sink in. Eventually Gordon Hirabayashi had a full trial in Seattle. He won on one issue, lost on the other. He took it to the Ninth Circuit and won on all of his issues. Like Fred, his conviction was vacated. In Oregon, Min Yasuis case was vacated without any statement by the judge."
In the East Room of the White House, on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday in 1998, President Clinton presented Korematsu with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award for his role in fighting for civil rights and praised his act of defiance as an "extraordinary stand."
In April 2000, during the first Annual Korematsu Lecture Series on Asian Americans and the Law held at the NYU Law School, Fred Korematsu shared the story of his life and his attorney Dale Minami talked about the details of these landmark Supreme Court cases.
Minami said, "In 1942 when Japanese Americans were taken away, nobody stood for them. Some of the most liberal groups in the country-the ACLU in New York failed to take a stand for them; the National Lawyer's Guild refused. In 1987 when redress was passed, and 1988 when the bill was signed by President Reagan, Japanese Americans had a lot of allies, they did not stand alone. In addition to revealing the injustice of the internment, the decision was also significant in its relation to the redress movement which led to the passage of a bill awarding $20,000 in reparations and a formal apology from the government to each of the surviving internees. In an effort to preserve Korematsu's civil-rights legacy, the Asian Law Caucus established the Fred Korematsu Civil Rights Fund, which provides a financial base for the agency's human-and civil-rights work. The Korematsu case is considered one of the most important legal cases in civil and minority rights."
Korematsu ended the lecture with quiet conviction, "I am an American; you are an American, that's the way it should be, that's the way I feel we should be looked at."
Excerpts of this article were orginally published in the August/September 2000 issue of A Magazine
Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story , featured on the PBS P.O.V. magazine show, garnered two Emmys at the 23rd annual Emmy Awards for broadcast journalism and documentaries held at the Marriott Marquis in New York. In the documentary; Korematsu is revered as an "American Hero," although over 50 years ago his name was anathema. Eric Paul Fournier, the film's director received the first Emmy for directing and the second with Jean Kawahara for editing. In the film, director Fourier takes a look back at Korematsu's challenge of the wartime incarceration of Japanese American citizens, his long ordeal to achieve personal justice and portrays his courage during and after the war while exploring the larger social and constitutional significance of Korematsu's landmark Supreme Court case. The documentary recounts Korematsu's struggle through his personal testimony, interviews, and archival footage interspersed with dramatic reenactments.
Fred Korematsu was one of three men who challenged Executive Order 9066, a presidential mandate that imprisoned Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II. Born in Oakland, CA in 1919, Korematsu was the third of four sons of Japanese immigrants who owned a successful flower nursery. When Korematsu's family was taken to Tanforan, a former racetrack south of San Francisco for processing, he refused to go. Then a 23-year-old welder, he was in love and planned to move with his Italian American fiancee. He waited until after the exclusion order deadline passed, had plastic surgery to disguise his Asian features and lived his life as a free man under an assumed name until May 30, 1942, when he was arrested on a street corner in San Leandro, just south of Oakland.
Tried and convicted for failing to report for evacuation, he was relocated with his family to an internment camp in Topaz, UT, where he was ostracized by the Japanese American community for dodging the relocation order. He appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, but on December 18, 1944, the court ruled against him, citing the simple reason that "we're at war with Japan." For nearly four decades after the war, Korematsu lived with a criminal record and silent hopes that someone might reopen his case. He was so ashamed that he never told his children. His daughter, Karen, discovered what had happened only when the Korematsu vs. United States case was taught in one of her high school school classes.